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With a law enforcement crackdown in Colombia, guerrillas are working across the border.
As a result, the zone is a haven for contrabandistas, who smuggle everything from powdered milk to cocaine. There’s even a booming trade in contraband gasoline. Cyclists strap containers of cheap Venezuelan gasoline to their racks, then walk their bikes across a river into Colombia to sell the fuel on the streets at a huge mark-up.
“If you have the money, you can buy anything on the border,” said Wilfredo Canizares, who runs a human rights organization in Cucuta. “You can purchase 100 rifles, a ton of cocaine, or precursor chemicals to make drugs.”
The Venezuelan side has long been used by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest rebel group known as the FARC, as well as a smaller guerrilla group called the ELN, to escape from army troops, treat their wounded and buy provisions.
Adding to the mayhem is a lack of cooperation between the right-wing Colombian government and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s left-wing president who openly admires the Colombian guerrillas. As tensions flared last year, Chavez dispatched thousands of troops to the Colombian border, sparking fears of war.
“The FARC and the ELN are not terrorists,” Chavez said at the time. “They are legitimate armies. They occupy territory. We must recognize them.”
Not surprisingly, relations between the security forces of both countries are chilly. They rarely exchange information or conduct joint operations to combat rebels and criminals, according to a recent report by the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota think tank.
With Colombian Army operations squeezing the FARC’s ability to kidnap and run drugs in their own territory, the guerrillas often find it easier to prey on Venezuelans.
But unlike Colombia, where kidnapping is part of the national fabric and many people have become hard-nosed negotiators, Venezuelans are more likely to panic and quickly turn over huge ransom payments, said Canizares, the human rights advocate.
“If I’m driving my car and see somebody behind me I just get nervous and want to run away," said Joan Manuel Sulveran, an insurance broker in San Cristobal. “There’s just too much insecurity. Before, (the kidnappers) went after rich people but now they go after everyone.”
Indeed, the family of Maria Jose Molina is solidly middle class.
Samuel Molina, who runs a small construction company, lived with Maria Jose and his wife, Carmen, on the outskirts of San Cristobal, an area with few police patrols.
On the night of June 26, 2008, two gunmen burst into their home. They were looking for Samuel but he was gone so they grabbed Maria Jose. Her mother insisted on going with her daughter.